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Hot Movie Takes: Payne’s ‘Downsizing’ may be next big thing on world cinema landscape

April 19, 2017 Leave a comment

Usually, I intuit, I lose half or more of you right at the top when I post a story about Alexander Payne. I get it. I really do. Well, not entirely. It seems that for some of you Payne’s work doesn’t register as all that funny or entertaining or satisfying. This despite the fact that over the last 20 years his films have received as much or more critical praise and box office love as many directors whose movies you may more readily embrace, such as Quentin Tarantino, Clint Eastwood, Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, David O. Russell, John Singleton, Antoine Fuqua, Jason Reitman and the Coen Brothers. I chalk it up to a taste thing. Fair enough. But I also have the sneaking suspicion that many of you have seen only a fraction of his films and that some of you have not seen any of them. If that’s true, then it’s a crying shame because you’re rejecting work based on perception without even trying it on for size. I mean, how do you really know if you like it or not if you don’t see it for yourself and purely base your appraisal on a trailer or a review or a stray comment or two? We all do it, of course, but I’m mainly addressing this to Nebraskans who, I would like to believe, should feel some natural affinity and curiosity, if not loyalty, for the work of one of their own. I know shared home state roots only go so far and Payne’s film worlds may seem very distant or disconnected from your own reality, but I don’t think that you would feel that way if you attended to them with an open mind. His humanistic films have something for everyone because they are drawn from the same human condition we all all subject to when it comes to love, loss and loneliness. If you watch his films and they still feel apart from you then his work may just not be for you but even then I suggest that that may change with his new film “Downsizing.” It’s interesting to say that because this film will intentionally be both very far removed from life as we know it and very close to it. It will depict worlds reminiscent of and different from mine and yours as it swings from some unnamed Middle Earth to very near future Omaha to a Leisure Land resort for miniaturized humans that includes a slum to Norwegian fjords and villages to various spots around the globe. In a first for Payne, much of the movie will be populated by characters representing diverse races and ethnicities to go along with the disparate locations. Visual effects will render the downsized-world alone and in juxtaposition with the normal-sized world. All of this is set against an end-of-world backdrop of extreme climatic, geo-political tensions and cosumer mania that pretty much mirrors where we’re at right now. The combination of little people. big ideas and a star-studded cast headlined by Matt Damon facing moral decisions and life and death questions amidst mind-blowing sets just might make this Payne’s first blockbuster. In which case he will be viewed in a whole new light by the industry and by some of you. Suddenly, Payne will be mentioned in the same breath with Michael Bay, J.J. Abrams, James Cameron and Christoper Nolan. Now wouldn’t that be a kick?

This is my new feature on “Downsizing” appearing in the April 2017 issue of The Reader (http://www.thereader.com/). It’s my latest read-all-about-it exclusive about the project informed by interviews with Payne, his co-writer Jim Taylor, cinematographer Phedon Papamichael, visual effects supervisor Jamie Price,  second unit director Tracy Boyd, editor Kevin Tent and casting director John Jackson, Who knows, after reading this piece it might even whet your appetite for seeing the film when it releases in December. It would behoove you to see it since I’m suggesting the film might just be the next big thing on the world cinema landscape. But don’t take my word for it. Be sure to see it for yourself when it opens and make up your mind based on that. Trailers for it should be hitting online and theaters soon, so that will give us all a sneak peak at what to expect. For you Payne cynics out there, just keep an open mind.

 

Hot Movie Takes:

Payne’s ‘Downsizing’ may be next big thing on world cinema landscape

©by Leo Adam Biga

Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

Story appears in the April 2017 issue of The Reader (http://www.thereader.com/)

 

 

The Reader April 2017 by PioneerMedia.Me – issuu

https://issuu.com/thereader_elperico/docs/april_tr2017

 

Just as Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey marked a seminal movie event, Alexander Payne’s Downsizing has milestone written all over it.

Kubrick’s 1968 landmark inspired by writer Arthur C. Clarke’s musings pushed special effects to new heights and gave sci-fi films higher standards to aspire to in terms of visuals and ideas. Now, a half-century from the release of that opus, Payne’s putting final touches on his own bold vision of imaginative fiction.

The big budget, visual effects-laden Downsizing confronts relevant social, political, ecological issues. Only once previously, with Citizen Ruth’s hot takes on abortion, has Payne been so thematically current. With its withering look at corporate greed, hyper consumerism, minority marginalization and ego-maniacal pitch men, Downsizing hits the zeitgeist on a global scale.

“It’s a big movie,” he said. “Not just the visual effects but the scope of the story with more of an episodic structure that spans many years and different locations.”

Just as the late Kubrick made elaborate satiric observations on human frailties, so does Payne. Their films register cold for many but there’s more warmth there than you recall. Where 2001 is a speculative adventure about the role of extraterrestrial life on Earth and beyond, Downsizing’s own mediation on what it means to be human remains firmly planted here.

Months away from its December theatrical release, Hollywood’s curious to see what a filmmaker identified with intimate human comedies does with a picture of this scale. Ironically, for Payne to achieve a film about miniaturization he worked with a larger crew and budget, on more, bigger sound stages and in more practical locations than ever before. Locations spanned Los Angeles, Omaha, Toronto and Norway. Second-unit director Tracy Boyd traveled to South Korea, Malaysia, Morocco and Spain to accrue crucial montage footage.

Downsizing’s every bit as ambitious as 2001 but both films are relatively simple at their core. Amid all its visual interstellar trappings, 2001 intimately rests on astronaut David Bowman’s interior time-space journey. Instilling in audiences the necessary sense of awe and immersion required Kubrick and Douglas Trumball to advance effects by a generation.

It’s not surprising Kubrick made Bowman’s mind-blowing head trip the POV reference point since the late iconoclast’s films were quite inner-directed despite their big ideas and sometimes massive sets.

Just as Kubrick distilled epoch events into an intimate tableaux, Payne distills human kind’s hopes, fears, vagaries in the intersection of three people meeting in a strange new world. Paul (Matt Damon) is the Everyman mensch whose surreal ride from normal to small, from nobody to pioneer, we hitch onto. Goran (Christoph Waltz) is the Euro-trash hustler who befriends him. Ngoc Lang (Hong Chau) is the Vietnamese human rights activist who becomes his love interest.

To naturalistically realize the small world, Payne relied on visual effects supervisor Jamie Price. The former Industrial Light and Magic wizard oversaw artists from ILM and other companies in making micro humans more believable than ever seen before on screen. Pulling this off is critical because the film’s entire vision hangs on audiences investing in characters and incidents without the distraction of call-attention-to-themselves effects.

Downsizing, like 2001, depends upon intact illusions without seams or wires showing. Where 2001’s monumental effects depict deep space and infinity, Downsizing depicts human discourse.

Co-writer Jim Taylor said he and Payne took the same approach to their original story as with all their films. “Really what we love are the details – the tiny, every day interactions people have. It’s such a great irony and a lot of people don’t necessarily realize this –  that the more specific you get, the more universal it is.”

Sure, the story’s replete with big concepts revolving around global warming’s dire consequences, but Taylor said, “We’re not making An Inconvenient Truth because that’s not our job. The themes are an excuse to enter this realm of relationships and personal struggles.”

Price said upon first reading the script he realized this project represented a whole new animal.

“What struck me about it immediately is that it really is an atypical visual effects movie. It’s a movie where the visual effects are used purely to serve the dramatic needs of the story. That’s a very refreshing and clever use of visual effects that drew me to it.

“Unlike building a set or having actors standing in a practical environment, there’s a lot that’s just not there when you’re rolling the camera and so you need to forge a good relationship and build the trust so that the director feels he’s going to get what he needs to tell the story the way he wants to tell it. Similarly, in visual effects, it’s our job to inform the director and the rest of the crew so that everyone has a good understanding of what we need to achieve the work successfully.”

In this case successful means making the effects look so real they blend in with the mundanity of every day life that Payne so exactingly extracts – just as Kubrick did.

“What I think makes Downsizing unique is its fresh take on a genre that’s been around for a long time,” Price said. “Movies in the past with small characters interacting with normal-sized humans have broadly fallen into three categories: science fiction, comedies, family movies or some combination. They often have a very different aesthetic than what Alexander intended.

“At one point producer Jim Burke asked me which movie in the past do I think most embodies the look we’re going for in Downsizing and I said, ‘I don’t think there is one.’ There’s pieces of movies with similar elements to what we want to achieve but there isn’t a movie that really has the same aesthetic.”

 

Downsizing - coming in 2017

 

Downsizing’s its own thing, Price said, because it’s a movie crafted by an auteur. “Early on, Alexander asked me, ‘How do we make this special?’ And I said, ‘Well, the way you make it special is you make it an Alexander Payne movie, because none of these other movies are that. If you bring your sensitivity and style to it then it will become something unique and new,’ and I think it has.”

Payne said Price did things to “trick me into thinking I’m making a real movie, not a visual effects movie.”

“He did it in such a way that I could focus on what’s important, which is the story, the characters, the acting, and keep that front and center,” Payne said. “That’s not to say a lot of thought was not put into the look and to how the sets should be and what we we’re going to build and what we’re going to extend digitally. That’s a constant discussion. But through all of that I knew my job was to keep the eye on the ball of the story.

“I never want the heft of this film to mar any intimacy of tone or idiosyncrasy of humor.”

Payne relied on Price’s team to make actors at ease with the effects work. Even though this was Payne and Price’s first production together, they go back eight years to when Payne first tried getting the movie made. An advantage of the long wait between conception and production was technology advances. A constant was Payne’s desire to not interfere with the actors’ process.

“Alexander was very interested in maintaining the spontaneity of the performances, which is difficult when one of the actors isn’t there and is going to be shot later,” Price said.

It helped having a star in Matt Damon whom Payne confirms is “the total professional” he’s reputed to be.

“For Matt Damon or any actor isolated in a visual effects scene, I made sure there was a person opposite them,” Payne said. “The actor still had a true acting partner in the scene (reading lines off-camera).”

Price said, “We made some choices during the production process, such as the way we built sets or how we staged certain things, so that Alexander could sort of forget the fact there was a green screen back there or there was only one half of the performers in the scene because we were going to be shooting another element green screen later.

“We used 5-inch tall dolls as stand-ins. We placed them in the scene for the actors to look at and so the camera could frame them up. That way Alexander could see the relationship between the two. We paint them out later. We tried to recreate as much as possible the scenario described in the screenplay even though we were ultimately assembling it digitally later.”

Payne found Damon to be the Everyman he plays.

“Genuinely a delight. He is who you hope he is. And the ease with which he can do anything is really something to watch. He’s only too ready to help,”

For the lead, casting director John Jackson said he and Payne concluded Damon was the only marketable star “that could be that lower middle-class Omaha dude. He is our generation’s Jack Lemmon. He can do comedy, he can do drama, he can do everything. An audience can project whatever they need to project onto him.”

 

    Getty Images

Matt Damon

Kristen-Wiig

Kristen Wiig
Christoph Waltz
Christoph Waltz

 

Even though protecting story was Payne’s overriding concern, there’s no escaping technology with 650 visual effects shots. He said the great challenge is “having always to match the digital extension of what those sets would be.” Not just sets, but actors, too. Payne wore a motion capture suit to act out scenes’ physical movements. He knew them better than anyone having inhabited the characters and actions while writing them. The data recorded from his walk-through guided CGI artists in creating 3D-animated Previs (pre-visualization) views that served as digital storyboards.

Though the demands of visual effects sometimes required extra takes, Payne said, “I still tried to be as economical and precise as possible. I might have done more takes to get certain things right because of all the moving parts, the number of extras or something technical about the shot. Even Matt Damon told me, ‘You like to do a lot of takes, but at least I know almost every shot’s going to be in the film.’ He meant

there’s a lot of films where they shoot a ton of footage with little idea of how it might cut together. I may overshoot in takes but not too much in actual coverage.”

Payne depends on various departments to get things right. Director of photography Phedon Papamichael was among many Downsizing crew who go way back with him. The DP felt having this family of creatives around was important on a project with so many new elements,

“He was surrounded by a very experienced crew and team he’s familiar with and we were able to preserve some of that family environment on the set despite the scale,” Papamichael said. “He still knew every driver’s and grip’s name and not only their name but if they have a kid in college who plays football. All of that is different than your average big movie where the director doesn’t know the dolly grip’s name even after 14 weeks.”

Jim Taylor isn’t normally on set much but, he said,

“On this movie we thought I needed to be there all the time, so I was. There were contributions I could make. It doesn’t come up that often but Alexander likes to have someone around he can turn to and say, ‘What do you think? What does that look like to you?'”

Being there for the full 75-day shoot gave Taylor insight on where his writing mate’s come as a director.

“It was really interesting for me to see how much more masterful he was working with the actors, knowing what he needed and getting what he needed and all that.”

Payne’s primary casting director since About Schmidt has been Council Bluffs native and resident, John Jackson. On Downsizing he and Payne filled a larger than usual roster of speaking parts and background extras to reflect the story’s global reach.

“I had many more extras than I’ve ever had on a film before,” Payne said, “and extras of different races and nationalities as we tried to portray certain worlds accurately. And so just on the casting side John Jackson and I had to expand our personnel to corral all the right extras and than on the set to direct them well. That has huge impact down the chain – the assistant directors, costume, even props, get hit harder.”

Jackson usually doesn’t office where the film shoots, but he did at Pinewood Studios in Toronto, where the film’s epic sets filled mega sound stages. He was mesmerized by the production unfolding around him.

“It was every fantasy I had as a kid – being on the lot and being able to walk down onto the sound stages and onto the sets. To see it as it was happening, to see the scope of it, to see all the incredible amount of hard work, planning and organization by the different teams from the grips to the construction guys, and watch it call come together was really humbling and very exciting.”

One new creative collaborator was Italian production designer Stefania Ceila.

“She’s amazing,” said cinematographer Papamichael, “Very passionate, very vocal, expressive and stubborn, but it was a wonderful relationship. Visually. I think we definitely elevated to a new level and Alexander has embraced that. The language still has simplicity and not showing off, not getting in the way, still focusing on the humanity and the emotions of actors.

“Even with all the effects and the scale, filling up the largest stage in North America, we still applied the same   Alexander Payne language. In the end hopefully the technology will all sort of go away and just blend in – fall into his style of storytelling and people will not really be aware they’re watching an $85 million effects movie.”

Payne acknowledged the experience was more     overwhelming than past projects.

“I had moments on this film when I felt like not only did I not know what I was doing but I had never seen a movie before. It’s been a hard movie. You just get through it.”

Complicating matters, he herniated a disc in Toronto. “I suffered the indignity of directing from a wheelchair for about a week,” he said.

 

74247 full

 

Papamichael said despite everything the experience was akin to other Payne movies, adding, “It was just physically and mentally more taxing because of the longer process.”

After wrapping in Canada, the production broke before reconvening in Norway the last two weeks.

“This was the dessert of the film -– shooting in Norway,” Payne said. “We were bowled over by the beauty of the fjords, where we were shooting north of the Arctic circle  in a really beautiful region called Lofoten.”

He said the Norway sojourn involved “scouting and shooting from helicopter and boats.” “In the movie there’s a 1927 English yacht we shot on. We were living on a very large ocean liner currently not in use.”

Payne and editor Kevin Tent have been cutting since September. Rough cut screenings yield notes and feedback. Scenes get reassembled “in trying to figure out what the film wants to be,” Payne said. Frequent visual effects meetings, he said, hash out “what we’re going to put in the frame when when we shot there was only green – like literally what is that going to look like, and then tracking the execution of the visual effects artists to make sure it looks good.”

With 2001 Kubrick tackled nothing less than the dawn of man and humankind’s place in the universe. Much of his focus in that film and his other films was on the contrast between the ordinariness of life and its extremes. Under pressure, people do very wrong things. It’s an essentially pessimistic view that seems to suggest man’s inhumanity to man is inevitable and inescapable.

Meanwhile. Payne celebrates foibles as unavoidable traits of our shared imperfection. Unlike Kubrick, he’s hopeful we can navigate life without total ruin. Though divisions cause angst in Downsizing, a sense of community, sacrifice and even love prevails.

Payne said, “This film unites a lot of the themes Jim (Taylor) and I have been using in our previous films and I hope bringing them to a higher level. We will see about that. I don’t think in general it’s that different from what I’ve done before, it’s just a bigger canvas.

“When I think about movies with sprawling episodic structure I think of Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, 8 1/2 and Nights of Cabiria, where the story follows one protagonist through a series of adventures and by the end a moment happens that kind of in retrospect gives some thematic narrative cohesion to the story. It pulls a seemingly loose narrative thread suddenly taut. I do not wish to compare Downsizing to those greats but structurally I take inspiration from them.”

Payne and his team have given themselves over to this episodic framework.

“Phedon, Stefania and I in production and now Kevin Tent and I in editing have to accept that it’s a series of short films within one film. Each visually to some degree but now musically we just have to do what feels right in the film and hope to God it holds together.”

Editing is about finding-enhancing the film’s internal rhythms. Payne said, “Getting a handle on a picture of this scope” – he expects it to run 135-140 minutes – “takes a little doing.”

Downsizing contains elements that may remind one of other films, from 2001 to The Incredible Shrinking Man, but overall there’s really nothing to compare it to.

Papamichael said it’s the one Payne film he couldn’t get a visual handle on from the script “and now that I have done it I know why – it’s so diverse in looks and stories.” He said, “It goes through this arc, starting like a regular Alexander Payne movie in Omaha with an average guy at La Casa waiting for his pizza, to he and his wife going to Leisure Land and her leaving him to go through the downsizing process alone. That’s like the whole Kubrick episode of the film. It’s like going from something in About Schimdt to 2001: A Space Odyssey.”

He said the film’s juxtaposition of plastic Leisure Land’s “absurd embrace of American Consumerism” against sterile labs, awful slums, prosaic Omaha sites, world capitals, sublime fjords and an uncharted middle-Earth “really is like a series of short stories or short films that then all connect so beautifully through Paul’s adventure of self-discovery and subtle love story with Ngoc.”

Don’t expect anything but another low-key Paynsian ending that implies more than it shows. Like his other films, Payne said, Downsizing will “end with a feeling more than an event.” “I’m glad we’re able to have an ending to this big movie that hopefully will operate in that delicate space,” Taylor said.

Second-unit director Tracy Boyd, another of Payne’s longtime collaborators, referred to Payne’s consistent goal of surrendering any conscious, overt style to story.

“He so skillfully, masterfully hides the brushstrokes of what he’s doing and you’re fully submerged in what you’re seeing that you forget there’s a director behind all of that. He’s not trying to get you to think about who’s directing the picture as so many filmmakers do. It’s only with repeat viewings you recognize the subtle techniques and clarity behind every vision you see.”

Boyd, Taylor and others close to the project express confidence this promises to be a special, stand-the-test-of-time film. Papamichael disclosed “Paramount’s fully embracing the film – they actually think they have a commercial hit on their hands.” An awards contender, too. Everyone has high praise for the work of Damon and Hong Chau, whose breakout role this could be,

Only the box-office will tell, but Payne-Taylor say it’s their only movie that may have a sequel in the offing.

Should it resonate enough to enter the pop culture consciousness, this could be Payne’s The Godfather, Taxi Driver or Pulp Fiction. Taylor said it’s not as if Payne “wants somebody to give him a shot at some franchise movie.” He echoed Payne’s inclination to do anything but an effects movie as a follow-up. Maybe a long-talked about Western. Or shooting in Greece.

“I would like to do wildly different things,” Payne said.

“That would be fun. I don’t know what yet.”

Initial reviews should appear after major fall festival screenings. Omaha’s Ruth Sokolof or Dundee Theater will premiere Downsizing for its theatrical release.

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Hot Movie Takes: PAYNE’S “DOWNSIZING’” – It may be next big thing on the world cinema landscape

April 13, 2017 Leave a comment

Hot Movie Takes:

PAYNE’S “DOWNSIZING’” – It may be next big thing on the world cinema landscape

BY LEO ADAM BIGA, Author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”
April 2017 issue of The Reader

 

P

Hot Movie Takes: John Huston

March 31, 2017 Leave a comment

Hot Movie Takes 
John Huston

By Leo Adam Biga, author of “Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film”

 

When I originally posted about the subject of this Hot Movie Take, the late John Huston, I forgot to note that his work, though very different in tone, shares a penchant for unvarnished truth with that of Alexander Payne. Huston was a writer-director just like Payne is and  he was extremely well-read and well-versed in many art forms, again just as Payne is. The screenplays for Huston’s films were mostly adaptations of novels, short stories and plays, including some famous ones by iconic writers, and the scripts for Payne’s films are mostly adaptations as well.  Huston also collaborated with a lot of famous writers on his films, including Truma Capote and Arthur Miller. The work of both filmmakers shares an affinity for ambiguous endings. I think at his best Huston was more of a classic storyteller than Payne and his films more literate. Where Huston mostly made straight dramas, he showed a real flair for comedy the few times he ventured that way (“The African Queen,” “Beat the Devil,” “The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean” and “Prizzi’s Honor”). Payne insists that he makes comedies, though most would say he makes dramedies, a terrible descriptor that’s gained currency. More accurately, Payne’s comedy-dramas are satires. I think he’s more than capable of making a straight drama if he chose to, but so far he’s stayed true to himself and his strengths. If Payne is the ultimate cinema satirist of our tme, and I think he is, then Huston stands as the great film ironist of all time. With one using satire and the other using irony to great effect, their films get right to the bone and marrow of characters without a lot of facade. Just as it was for Huston, story and character is everything for Payne. And their allegiance to story and character is always in service to revealing truth.

 

 

Of all the great film directors to some out of the old studio system, only one, that craggy, gangly, hard angle of a man, John Huston, continued to thrive in the New Hollywood and well beyond.

It’s important to note Huston was a writer-director who asserted great independence even under contract. He began as a screenwriter at Universal and learned his craft there before going to work at Warner Brothers. But Huston was an accomplished writer long before he ever got to Hollywood. As a young man he found success as a journalist and short story writer, getting published in some of the leading magazines and newspapers of the day. Indeed, he did a lot things before he landed in Tinsel Town. He boxed, he painted, he became a horseman and cavalry officer in the Mexican uprisings, he hunted big gamma he acted and he caroused. His father Walter Huston was an actor in vaudeville before making it on the legitimate stage and then in films.

What he most loved though was reading. His respect for great writing formed early and it never left him. Having grown up the son of a formidable actor, he also respected the acting craft and the power and magic of translating words on a page into dramatic characters and incidents that engage and move us.

He admired his father’s talent and got to study his process up close. Before ever working in Hollywood, John Huston also made it his business to observe how movies were made.

But like most of the great filmmakers of that era, Huston lived a very full life before he ever embarked on a screen career. It’s one of the reasons why I think the movies made by filmmakers like Huston and his contemporaries seem more informed by life than even the best movies today. There’s a well lived-in weight to them that comes from having seen and done some things rather than rehashing things from books or film classes or television viewings.

Because of his diverse passions, Huston films are an interesting mix of the masculinity and fatalistic of, say. a Hemingway, and the ambiguity and darkness of, say, an F. Scott Fitzgerald or Eugene O’Neill. I use literature references because Huston’s work is so steeped in those traditions and influences. In film terms, I suppose the closest artists his work shares some kinship with are Wyler and John Ford, though Huston’s films are freer in form than Wyler’s and devoid of the sentimentality of Ford. As brilliantly composed as Wyler’s films are, they’re rather stiff compared to Huston’s. As poetic as Ford’s films are, they are rather intellectually light compared to Huston’s.

At Warners Huston developed into one of the industry’s top screenwriters with an expressed interest in one day directing his own scripts. Of all the Hollywood writers that transitioned to directing, he arguably emerged as the most complete filmmaker. While he never developed a signature visual style, he brought a keen intelligence to his work that emphasized character development and relationship between character and place. He made his directing invisible so as to better serve the story. When I think of Huston, I think of lean and spare. He perfected the art of cutting in the camera. He was precise in what he wanted in the frame and he got as close to what he had on the page and in his head as perhaps anyone who’s made feature-length narrative films. He did it all very efficiently and professionally but aesthetic choices came before any commercial considerations. He was known to be open to actors and their needs and opinions, but he was not easily persuaded to change course because he was a strong-willed artist who knew exactly what he wanted, which is to say he knew exactly what the script demanded.

His films are among the most literate of their or any era, yet they rarely feel stagy or artificial. From the start, Huston revealed a gift for getting nitty gritty reality on screen. He was also very big on location shooting when that was still more a rarity than not and he sometimes went to extreme lengths to capture the real thing, such as encamping in the Congo for “The African Queen.” Look at his “The Man Who Would Be King” and you’ll find it’s one of the last great epic adventure stories and Huston and Co.really did go to harsh, remote places to get its settings right.

The realism of his work is often balanced by a lyrical romanticism. But there are some notable exceptions to this in films like “Fat City.”

He sometimes pushed technical conventions with color experiments in “Moulin Rouge,” “Moby Dick” and “Reflections in a Golden Eye.”

As a young man learning the ropes, he reportedly was influenced by William Wyler and other masters and clearly Huston was a good student because right out of the gate with his first film as director, “The Maltese Falcon,” his work was fully formed.

In his first two decades as a writer-director, Huston made at least a half dozen classics. His best work from this period includes:

The Maltese Falcon
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
The Asphalt Jungle
Key Largo
The Red Badge of Courage
Heaven Knows Mr. Allison
Beat the Devil
Moby Dick
The Unforgiven

Huston remained a relevant director through the 1960s with such films as:

The Misfits
Freud
The List of Adrian Messenger
The Night of the Iguana
Reflections in a Golden Eye

But his greatest work was still ahead of him in the 1970s and 1980s when all but a handful of the old studio filmmakers were long since retired or dead or well past their prime. Huston’s later works are his most complex and refined:

Fat City
The Man Who Would Be King
Wiseblood
Under the Volcano
Prizzi’s Honor
The Dead

I have seen all these films, some of them numerous times, so I can personally vouch for them. There are a few others I’ve seen that might belong on his best efforts list, including “The Roots of Heaven.” Even a near miss like “The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean” is worth your time. And there are a handful of ’70s era Huston films with good to excellent reputations I’ve never gotten around to seeing, notably “The Kremlin Letter” and “The Mackintosh Man,” that I endeavor to see and judge for myself one day.

 

Arthur Miller and John Huston pose with the cast of "The Misfits"

Three star-crossed iconic actors with Huston, Arthur Miller, Eli Wallach and Co. on the set of “The Misfits”

 

It would be easy for me to discuss any number of his films but I elect to explore his final and, to my tastes anyway, his very best film, “The Dead” (1987). For me, it is a masterpiece that distills everything Huston learned about literature, film, art, music, life, you name it, into an extraordinary mood piece that is profound in its subtleties and observations. For much of his career, Huston portrayed outward adventures of characters in search of some ill-fated quest. These adventures often played out against distinct, harsh urban or natural landscapes. By the end of his career, he turned more and more to exploring inward adventures. “The Dead” is an intimate examination of grief, love, longing and nostalgia. Based on a James Joyce short story, it takes place almost entirely within a private home during a Christmas gathering that on the surface is filled with merriment but lurking just below is bittersweet melancholia, particularly for a married couple stuck in the loss of their child. It is a tender tone poem whose powerful evocation of time, place and emotion is made all the more potent because it is so closely, carefully observed. Much of the inherent drama and feeling resides in the subtext behind the context. Discovering these hidden meaning sin measured parts is one of the many pleasures of this subdued film that has more feeling in one frame than any blockbuster does in its entirety. “The Dead” is as moving a meditation on the end of things, including human life, that I have ever seen.

Huston made the film while a very sick and physically feeble old man. He was in fact dying. But it might as well be the work of a young stallon because it’s that vital and rigorous. The fact that he was near death though gives his interpretation and expression of the story added depth and poignancy. He knew well the autumnal notes it was playing. The film starts his daughter Angelica Huston. It was their third and final collaboraton.

If you don’t know Huston the writer-director I urge you to seek out his work and even if you do you may discover he made films you didn’t associate with him. Just like we often don’t pay attention to the bylines of writers who author pieces we read and even enjoy, some of us don’t pay strict attention to who the directors of films are, even if we enjoy them. Some of you may even be more familiar with Huston’s acting than his directing. His turn in “Chinatown” is a superb example of character acting. My point is, whatever Huston means or doesn’t meant to you, seek out his work and put the pieces together of the many classics he made that you’ve seen and will make a point to see.

40th Anniversary of “Rocky”

December 18, 2016 Leave a comment

40th Anniversary of “Rocky”

By writing the screenplay for “Rocky,” holding out to play the title character and then delivering the goods in a surprise monster hit that earned industry praise, Sylvester Stallone pulled off a miracle every bit as dramatic as his fictional alter-ego Rocky Balboa going the distance with Apollo Creed.

Stallone literally wrote his own ticket to stardom. When he made the deal to sell the script to United Artists on the condition he star in it, he was an obscure character actor with no real prospects for a feature career. Stallone, much like the character of Rocky himself, had nothing to lose. That’s why he could afford to decline big money offers to sell the material so that the studio could cast Ryan O’Neal, Burt Reynolds, James Caan, Robert Redford or some other established star as the lead. He was in a once-in-lifetime bargaining position to say, you either make the movie with me or I take it somewhere else. Of course, there was no guarantee UA or any other studio would want his script bad enough to accept his terms.

Rocky is an interesting property because it bridges old and new trends. On the one hand, it’s very much in the tradition of old Warner Bros. urban dramas with the requisite love story and comedic relief thrown in. On the other hand it’s very much in tune with the new humanistic, ultra realism of late ’60s-early ’70s cinema that’s stripped away of easy sentiment. Under John Avildsen’s direction, the story is anchored in that dour, gritty, work-a-day world truth yet, when called for, it’s carried away by delirious, romanticized sentiment. The movie even anticipates the flawed Marvel superheroes who would come to dominate the American cinema box office decades later. As over the top as the ending of “Rocky” gets, it somehow all works and I think it’s because of the cumulative weight of all that transpires before it and by how much we invest emotionally in the lovable loser characters Stallone created.

Stallone followed his heart,, passion and instinct in drawing on real life elements and populist themes to create an original script that had box office written all over it but that no one outside Stallone, producers Robert Chartoff and Irwin Winkler and director Avildsen believed he could carry. Sure, any number of actors could have played the role, but no one knew the character as well as Stallone because Rocky Balboa grew out of his own personal and professional struggles. Stallone tapped his own demons and aspirations to conceive this anti-hero and then he used all those emotions again to bring that character to life on the set and on the screen.

Image may contain: one or more people

Rocky hit at just the right time, too, in terms of the national zeitgeist. America was cynical and weary coming out of Watergate and Vietnam and so the moviegoing public was ready for an escapist, feel-good experience, Just as “American Graffiti” and “Jaws” had before it and just as “Star Wars” and “Superman” did after it, Rocky caught the wave of popcorn fare, only not relying on nostalgia or thrills or special effects like other blockbusters of that era, but on good old-fashioned storytelling and richly developed characters. Rocky was much closer in tone and content to, say, “On the Waterfront,” than to the other major boxing-themed movies of that period, John Huston’s “Fat City,” Martin Ritt’s “The Great White Hope” and Martin Scorsese’s “Raging Bull.” Which is to say that at the end of the day Rocky, like those other pictures, is not so much a boxing movie per se as it is a slice of life portrait of someone who just happens to be a boxer. “On the Waterfront” is essentially a crime film and morality play whose protagonist, Terry Malloy, is an ex-prizefighter. “Fat City” is a stark, nihilistic view of down-and-outers in skid-row Los Angeles, where a veteran club fighter mentors a new arrival. “The Great White Hope” profiles a black man, Jack Johnson, who refuses to live by the white man’s rules. “Raging Bull” is an expressionistic look at the demon’s that drove Jake LaMotta.

In my opinion, there are better movies about boxing than “Rocky,” such as “Creed,” “The Fighter,” “The Set-Up” “Ali,” and “Cinderella Man.” The fight scenes in “Rocky” are just too unrealistic for my tastes, though they mostly do work dramatically. But, again, “Rocky” transcends the boxing genre into something else again.

“Rocky” is a classic redemption story. In this first iteration of Rocky Balboa, Stallone gives us a man who could have been something as a fighter but has given up on himself just as others have given up on him. Then, he finds the love of a good woman and when presented with an extraordinary opportunity, he rededicates himself to his craft and rises to the challenge of facing the champ. Stallone was able to pour himself into the character in writing the script because he could so closely identify with the story of a guy everyone considers a loser who gets one chance to make things right. Art imitated life again when the studio relented and bankrolled his movie with him in the lead despite their grave reservations and he turned this million to one shot into the talk of the 1976 movie season and the catalyst for a career and, as it happened, for a four-decade long franchise.

In the sound era when has an actor been as responsible for his or her own star-making vehicle as Stallone was with Rocky? After all, he wrote the part that launched him into mega-stardom and gave him an enduring character he’s still playing 40 years later. The closest comparisons I can come up with are Orson Welles in “Citizen Kane,” which he co-wrote, directed and starred in, though that film didn’t really make him a star, and Matt Damon and Ben Affleck in “Good Will Hunting,” which “the boys” co-wrote and co-starred in, though Damon already had several major screen credits before Hunting.

Of course, in the silent era Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton wrote and directed pictures starring themselves and in the process created their own signature comic personas. In the early talkies era Mae West wrote the scripts for her own popular starring vehicles.

Surely other come-out-of-nowhere Hollywood stories have followed, but I doubt if any compare to what Stallone did with Rocky. First, there’s the enduring appeal of that original film that won Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Editing. Everything had to come together to make Rocky work and it did. Stallone found the right producers in Robert Chartoff and Irwin Winkler and the right director in John Avildsen and the right supporting actors in Talia Shire, Burt Young, Burgess Meredith and Carl Weathers.

The authentic locations in Philadelphia brought a real sense of verisimilitude to the action.

Then there’s the fact that Rocky was hardly an isolated experience for Stallone. He has “screenplay” and “written by” credits on dozens of films. including some very good ones: “F.I.S.T.”; “Paradise Alley”; “Rocky II”; “First Blood”; “Rocky Balboa.” And his interpretations of Rocky in the franchise’s later movies, as the character’s moved into middle age (“Rocky Balboa”) and beyond (“Creed”) are richer and more nuanced, filled with the experience of a life lived. Even though I am not that big a fan of his work, I personally rooted for him to win the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for “Creed” because I thought he gave a superb performance that totally anchored that very good movie. I actually think his work in “Paradise Alley”, as an actor. writer and director is among the best he’s ever done but that cult favorite remains little seen and appreciated and apparently the studio forced him to make cuts against his wishes. I also admired what he did as an actor in “Cop Land,” when he played against type, though I think the script and direction by James Mangold undercut the power of Stallone’s performance by making his character’s slow burn too gradual.

Now that Stallone has aged into character roles, I love that he’s playing a succession of mobsters in upcoming projects: “Scarpa”; “Omerta”; and “Idiot’s Eye”. He has the presence, the charisma and the chops to bring his own take to these familiar types and to perhaps make them new.

Stallone’s path after “Rocky” has followed the inevitable highs, lows, excesses, failures and comebacks that accompany anyone’s life and career over a long span of time. It’s been 40 years since he gave us “Rocky.” It’s a testament to the indelible figure of Rocky Balboa he created that the film, the character and the resulting franchise still resonate this many years later. The “Rocky” brand is still going strong alongside other movie franchises. But unlike the others, “Rocky” doesn’t rely on visual effects and superhuman conceits. Even with its occasional flights of fancy, the “Rocky” series is firmly rooted in reality. That’s saying something in today’s CGI cinema universe.

I had an idea for an anniversary screening of “Rocky” in Omaha with hometown world champ Terence “Bud” Crawford introducing the film and serving on a panel after the screening. Fellow panelists would have included Ron “The Bluffs Butcher” Stander and Bruce “The Mouse” Strauss. Sadly, I couldn’t get support for the project. Oh, well, maybe for the 50th.

Jim Taylor, the Other Half of Hollywood’s Top Screenwriting Team, Talks About His Work with Alexander Payne


No matter how Alexander Payne’s in-progress film Downsizing is received when released next year, it will be remembered as his first foray into special effects, science fiction, big budget filmmaking and sprawling production extending across three nations. But the most important development it marks is the rejoining of Payne and his longtime screenwriting partner, Jim Taylor, whose contributions to the film’s they’ve collaborated on often get overlooked even though he’s shared an Oscar with Payne and has been nominated for others with him. In truth, Payne and Taylor never broke with each other. Payne did make both The Descendants and Nebraska without Taylor’s writing contribution, but following their last collaboration, Sideways, and during much of the period when Payne was producing other people’s films and then mounting and making the two films he directed following Sideways, these creative partners were busily at work on the Downsizing screenplay. It’s been awhile since I last interviewed Taylor. I am sharing the resulting 2005 story here, It is included in my book Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film. A new edition of the book releases Sept. 1.

As my story makes clear, Payne and Taylor go farther back then Citizen Ruth, the first feature they wrote together and the first feature that Payne directed. Their bond goes all the way back to college and to scuffling along to try to break into features. After Citizen Ruth, they really made waves with their scripts for Election and About Schmidt. And then Sideways confirmed them as perhaps Hollywood’s top screenwriting tandem. They also collaborated on for-hire rewrite jobs on scripts that others directed.

I will soon be doing a new interview with Taylor for my ongoing reporting about Payne and his work. Though Taylor is not a Nebraskan, his important collaboration with Payne makes him an exception to the rule of only focusing on natives for my in-development Nebraska Film Heritage Project. By the way, one of the films that Payne produced during his seven year hiatus from directing features was The Savages, whose writer-director, Tamara Jenkins, is Taylor’s wife. That Payne and Taylor have kept their personal friendship and creative professional relationship intact over 25-plus years, including a production company they shared together, is a remarkable feat in today’s ephemeral culture and society.

NOTE: For you film buffs out there, I will be interviewing Oscar-winning cinematographer Mauro Fiore and showing clips of his work at Kaneko in the Old Market, on Thursday, July 21. The event starts at 7 p.m. and will include a Q & A. For details and tickets, visit–

Mauro Fiore: Writing with Light

Link to my cover story about Mauro and more info about the event at–

https://leoadambiga.com/…/05/04/master-of-light-mauro-fiore/

 

 

<a gi-track='captionPersonalityLinkClicked' href=/galleries/search?phrase=Jim+Taylor&family=editorial&specificpeople=209181 ng-click='$event.stopPropagation()'>Jim Taylor</a> and <a gi-track='captionPersonalityLinkClicked' href=/galleries/search?phrase=Alexander+Payne&family=editorial&specificpeople=202578 ng-click='$event.stopPropagation()'>Alexander Payne</a>, winners Best Screenplay for “Sideways”

Jim Taylor and Alexander Payne, winners Best Screenplay for “Sideways”

 

Jim Taylor, the Other Half of Hollywood’s Top Screenwriting Team, Talks About His Work with Alexander Payne

Published in a fall 2005 issue of The Reader

©by Leo Adam Biga

 

There’s an alchemy to the virtuoso writing partnership of Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor, Oscar winners for Sideways (2004) and previous nominees for Election (1999), that resists pat analysis. The artists themselves are unsure what makes their union work beyond compatibility, mutual regard and an abiding reverence for cinema art.

Together 15 years now, their professional marriage has been a steady ascent amid the starts and stops endemic to filmmaking. As their careers have evolved, they’ve emerged as perhaps the industry’s most respected screenwriting tandem, often drawing comparisons to great pairings of the past. As the director of their scripts, Payne grabs the lion’s share of attention, although their greatest triumph, Sideways, proved “a rite of passage” for each, Taylor said, by virtue of their Oscars.

Taylor doesn’t mind that Payne, the auteur, has more fame. ”He pays a price for that. I’m not envious of all the interviews he has to do and the fact his face is recognized more. Everywhere he goes people want something from him. That level of celebrity I’m not really interested in,” he said by phone from the New York home he shares with filmmaker wife Tamara Jenkins (The Slums of Beverly Hills).

With the craziness of Sideways now subsided and Payne due to return soon from a month-long sojourn in Paris, where he shot a vignette for the I Love Paris omnibus film, he and Taylor will once again engage their joint muse. So far, they’re being coy about what they’ve fixed as their next project. It may be the political, Altmanesque story they’ve hinted at. Or something entirely else. What is certain is that a much-anticipated new Payne-Taylor creation will be in genesis.

Taylor’s an enigma in the public eye, but he is irreducibly, inescapably one half of a premier writing team that shows no signs of running dry or splitting up. His insights into how they approach the work offer a vital glimpse into their process, which is a kind of literary jam session, game of charades and excuse for hanging out all in one. They say by the time a script’s finished, they’re not even sure who’s done what. That makes sense when you consider how they fashion a screenplay — throwing out ideas over days and weeks at a time in hours-long give-and-take riffs that sometimes have them sharing the same computer monitor hooked up to two keyboards.

Their usual M.O. finds them talking, on and on, about actions, conflicts, motivations and situations, acting out or channeling bits of dialogue and taking turns giving these elements form and life on paper.

”After we’ve talked about something, one of us will say, ‘Let me take a crack at this,’ and then he’ll write a few pages. Looking at it, the other might say, ‘Let me try this.’ Sometimes, the person on the keyboard is not doing the creative work. They’re almost inputting what the other person is saying. It’s probably a lot like the way Alexander works with his editor (Kevin Tent), except we’re switching back and forth being the editor.”

For each writer, the litmus test of any scene is its authenticity. They abhor anything that rings false. Their constant rewrites are all about getting to the truth of what a given character would do next. Avoiding cliches and formulas and feel-good plot points, they serve up multi-shaded figures as unpredictable as real people, which means they’re not always likable.

”I think it’s true of all the characters we write that there’s this mixture of things in people. Straight-ahead heroes are just really boring to us because they don’t really exist,” said Taylor, whose major influences include the humanist Czech films of the 1960s. “I think once we fall in love with the characters, then it’s really just about the characters for us. We have the best time writing when the characters are leading us somewhere and we’re not so much trying to write about some theme.”

Sideways’ uber scene, when Miles and Maya express their longing for each other via their passion for the grape, arose organically.

“We didn’t labor any longer over that scene than others,” he said. “What happened was, in our early drafts we had expanded on a speech Miles has in the book (Rex Pickett’s novel) and in later drafts we realized Maya should have her own speech. At the time we wrote those speeches we had no idea how important they would turn out to be. It was instinctive choice to include them, not something calculated to fill a gap in a schematic design.”

 

Writer/director Tamara Jenkins and writer/producer <a gi-track='captionPersonalityLinkClicked' href=/galleries/search?phrase=Jim+Taylor&family=editorial&specificpeople=209181 ng-click='$event.stopPropagation()'>Jim Taylor</a> attend 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest' intro at MoMA on February 15, 2008 in New York City.

Writer/director Tamara Jenkins and writer/producer Jim Taylorattend ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ intro at MoMA on February 15, 2008 in New York City.

 

He said their scripts are in such “good shape” by the time cameras roll that little or no rewriting is done on set. “Usually we’ll make some minor changes after the table reading that happens right before shooting.” Taylor said Payne asks his advice on casting, locations, various cuts, music, et cetera.

Their process assumes new colors when hired for a script-doctor job (Meet the Parents, Jurassic Park III), the latest being I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry.

“With those projects we’re trying to accommodate the needs of a different director and we generally don’t have much time, so we don’t allow problems to linger as long as we would, which is good practice,” said Taylor. “It’s good for us to have to work fast. We’ll power through stuff, where we might let it sit longer and just let ourselves be stuck.”

Ego suppression explains in part how they avoid any big blow ups.

”I think it’s because both of us are interested in making a good movie more than having our own ideas validated,” Taylor said. “So we are able to, hopefully, set our egos aside when we’re working and say, ‘Oh, that’s a good idea,’ or, ‘That’s a better idea.’ I think a lot of writing teams split up because they’re too concerned about protecting what they did as opposed to remembering what’s good for the script. We can work out disagreements without having any fallout from it. It’s funny. I mean, sometimes we do act like a married couple. There’s negotiations to be made. But mostly we just get along and enjoy working together.”

As conjurers in the idiom of comedy, he said, “I think our shared sensibilities are similar enough that if I can make him laugh or he can make me laugh, then we feel like we’re on the right track.”

Collaboration is nothing new for Taylor, a Pomona College and New York University Tisch School of the Arts grad, who’s directed a short as well as second unit work on Payne shoots (most of the 16 millimeter footage in Election) and is developing feature scripts for himself to direct.

”For me, I didn’t set out to be a screenwriter, I set out to be a filmmaker,” said Taylor, a former Cannon Films grunt and assistant to director Ivan Passer (Cutter’s Way). So did Alexander. And we kind of think of it all as one process, along with editing…People say everything is writing. Editing is writing and in a strange way acting is writing, and all that. Filmmaking itself is a collaborative medium. People drawn to filmmaking are drawn to working with other people. Sure, a lot of screenwriters do hole up somewhere so they’re not disturbed, but I’m not like that and Alexander’s not like that. I don’t like working on my own. I like to bounce ideas off people. Filmmaking demands it, as opposed to being a novelist or a painter, who work in forms that aren’t necessarily collaborative.”

Simpatico as they are, there’s also a pragmatic reason for pairing up.

”We just don’t like doing it alone and it’s less productive, too. And we sort of have similar ideas, so why not do it together? Even beyond that, it’s like a quantum leap in creativity. You’re just sort of inspired more to come up with something than if you’re just sitting there and hating what you’re doing. At least there’s somebody there going, ‘Oh, that’s good,’ or, ‘How do we do this?’ And you sort of stick with the problem as opposed to going off and cleaning out a drawer or something.”

Payne says scripting with someone else makes the writing process “less hideous.” For Taylor, flying solo is something to be avoided at all costs.

”I hate it. I really hate it. I mean, I do it, but it’s very slow and I don’t think it’s as good,” he said. “I’m getting Alexander’s input on something I’ve been working on for a long, long time on my own, a screenplay called The Lost Cause about a Civil War reenactor, and I expect it to became 50 percent better just because of working with him. We’ll essentially do with it what we do on a production rewrite.”

Lost Cause was part of a “blind deal” Taylor had with Paramount’s Scott Rudin, now at Disney. The fate of Taylor’s deal is unclear.

Writing with his other half, Taylor said, opens a script to new possibilities. “I’ll see it through different eyes when I’m sitting next to Alexander and maybe have ideas I wouldn’t otherwise.”

 

Sideways Photo

 

The pair’s operated like this since their first gig, co-writing short films for cable’s Playboy Inside Out series. The friends and one time roommates have been linked ever since. ”It’s pretty hard to extract the friendship from the partnership or vice versa. It’s all kind of parts of the same thing. We don’t end up seeing each other that much because we live in separate cities, unless we’re working together,” Taylor said. “So our friendship is a little bit dependent on our work life at this point, which is too bad.” However, he added there’s an upside to not being together all the time in the intense way collaborators interact, “It’s important to not get too overdosed on who you’re working with.”

He can’t imagine them going their separate ways unless there’s a serious falling out. ”That would only happen of we had personal problems with each other. Sometimes, people naturally drift apart, and we’re both working against that. We’re trying to make sure that it doesn’t just drift away, because that would be sad.”

Keeping the alliance alive is complicated by living on opposite coasts and the demands of individual lives/careers. But when Taylor talks about going off one day to make his own movies, he means temporarily. He knows Payne has his back. “He’s supportive of my wanting to direct. But I’m so happy working with him that if that were all my career was, I’d be a very lucky person.”

Hot Movie Takes: Lensing April 1, Payne’s ‘Downsizing’ promises to be his most ambitious film to date

April 1, 2016 Comments off

UPDATE: It turns out that Alec Baldwin did not participate in “Downsizing” after all. Insstead, his part of a real estate magnate was played by another name actor with a similar vibe and facility for playing smarmy – Bruce Willis.

After not directing a feature film for seven years following Sideways, Alexander Payne professed he would start making films with more frequency starting with The Descendants. He’s kept his word, too, by making Nebraska and now comes Downsizing, whose production starts April 1. With its science fiction high concept or big idea, the new film is a stand alone project for the Oscar-winner in some ways but once you get past the hook of miniaturized humans it plays, at least on the page, much like all his work, with some major exceptions. For example, while much of the story’s action is quite intimate and centered around closely observed human frailities, there is an end of world backdrop informing it all. Never have the stakes been so high in a Payne film.

A month ago I broke the story of the film’s plot and in this new post I offer additional context from my own reading of the script and from interviews I did with Payne about the screenplay and about various other aspects of the project. Payne is working with his most star laden cast, with his largest crew, with visual effects for the first time and on sound stages for the first time, all of which makes this film a must follow and presumably a must see. Add to that a vast physical production shooting in three countries and telling a story rife with social-political issues, and you have a film that would seeem to demand attention. When you add its metaphorical, fable-like narrative, well, then it may just be a film for the ages.

Watch for more updates and stories about the making of this film and interviews with some of its key creatives.

 

Hot Movie Takes:

Lensing April 1, Payne’s Downsizing promises to be his most ambitious film to date

Project shooting in L.A. Omaha, Norway and Toronto goes small to tackle big themes

©by Leo Adam Biga, Author of Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film (new edition out summer 2016)

Exclusive for Leo Adam Biga’s My Inside Stories @ leoadambiga.com

 

Downsizing - coming in 2017

 

 

The fact that Alexander Payne’s seventh feature turned out to be Downsizing came as no real surprise since he and Jim Taylor labored over the script 10 years. They nearly got it made twice, which is why Google searches bring up links and references to earlier incarnations of the project, including stars and studios formerly attached who dropped away in the intervening years. As Payne puts it, the time was finally right for the project to happen.

Payne reportedly had an all-star cast attached to the project when it first gained steam nearly a decade ago. Though the actors have changed, the final cast of Downsizing constitutes the greatest collective star power and depth of talent yet seen in one of his films. The names include an Oscar winner, box office draws, critical darlings and international artists from other nations. None has previously worked with Payne.That who’s-who roster includes: Matt Damon, Kristen Wiig, Jason Sudeikis, Neal Patrick Harris, Alec Baldwin, Christoph Waltz, Udo Kier, Paul Mabon, Warren Belle and Hong Chau.

In some interesting casting notes, just days before the April 1 shoot start it was announced that Reese Witherspoon, long slated to play Damon’s wife, was no longer attached to the project and that Kristen Wiig had replaced her. I cannot recall anything like that happening so late in the process on any of Payne’s previous films. I have to think that Wiig had already been considered or that Damon recommended her since she appeared with him in the critically acclaimed The Martian. Wiig represents the second Saturday Night Live (italics) alumnus, after Will Forte, to grace one of his films. And with the casting of Paul Mabon and Warren Belle, there will finally be black actors in speaking parts in a Payne film. The absence of people of color in his films had not gone unnoticed. There are even some well-known actors of color from Omaha who have expressed dismay or disappointment at that lack.

Since it has been revealed elsewhere I can also reveal here  a major plot point involving Wiig’s character. Read on to to learn that.

Years back, when Payne spoke about the film in only cryptic terms, he referred to it as being in the spirit of an episodic Robert Altmanesque ensemble piece, Some of if does play that way on the page, although Payne and Taylor tend to be more narratively disciplined than Altman was.

The basic hook has been public knowledge for some time. The IMDB (Internet Movie Data Base) log line reads: “A social satire in which a guy realizes he would have a better life if he were to shrink himself.” Not much to go on. But the idea of miniaturized human life does set the mind to conjuring all sorts of scenarios. Something not left to the imagination but rather always known about the project is its reliance on visual effects in order to make believable the conceit of science giving human beings the option to be radically reduced in size. Effects are the only way to realize that on screen. It follows then that Downsizing is a science fiction flick, though Payne does not come right out and call it that. But clearly it resides somewhere in the sci-fi genre.

I do not mean to suggest Payne in any way distances himself from science fiction, In an interview with me he actually referenced a quote he attributed to the great author Ray Bradbury, who when asked something to the effect, you are such a great writer but why do you write science fiction, which of course implied that the genre is somehow inferior to or less important than other literature. Payne remembered Bradbury’s answer as something like – Well, science fiction is the most realistic genre. While I could not find that quotation from Bradbury, I did find these quotations attributed to him that seem to make the same point:

“Science fiction is the most important literature in the history of the world because it’s the history of ideas, the history of our civilization birthing itself. Science fiction is central to everything we’ve ever done…” and “Science fiction is not just the art of the possible, but of the obvious.”

Any number of other great sci-fi authors, from Robert Heinlein to Isaac Asimov to Frank Herbert, have said similar things; the common sentiment being that the genre draws on humankind’s oldest, deepest, and unfolding yearnings and imaginings and therefore it resides in the very nature of what it means to be alive from moment to moment.

Up until early 2016, all one could glean about the project is that after previous tries to get it financed the film finally found a home at Paramount, the studio that also produced Payne’s Nebraska. All the trade press had to go on was that tease of a premise about miniaturization. Everything else was pure conjecture. Even with that bare thread it was not hard to conceive what fertile territory such a set up provided Payne and Taylor. Still, unless you read the script, saying anything more about Downsizing was supposition since Payne was protective about the story he and Taylor so long nurtured. Principal cast and crew were similarly reticent in giving anything away.

I actually ended up being the first journalist to report on the plot of Downsizing after Payne let me read the script and interview him about it. It is a practice we have long held. He shares his final drafts with me on a for-my-eyes-only basis and I am then able to mine depths not afforded other writers. I was also the first to get Payne to speak at any length about the project. You can link to that earlier story at-

https://leoadambiga.com/?s=downsizing

Breaking that worldwide exclusive was extremely satisfying. I hope it offered a tantalizing preview of what should be one of the most talked about features of 2017. In this new exclsuive I reveal a bit more than I could at the time about the film since the project is now underway and the publicity apparatus behind it is gearing up.

 

 

    Getty Images

Matt Damon

Kristen-Wiig

Kristen Wiig
Christoph Waltz
Christoph Waltz

 

All scripts go through some evolutionary process but Downsizing’s lasted longer than most. Earlier versions contained more characters and scenes that stretched the budget necessary to create on screen miniaturized human life set against the backdrop of vast global events.

“It’s the same basic strange story we’ve been working on for these many years but finally in 2014, right after I finished Nebraska, Jim and I returned to the script and we finally had the courage to jettison certain aspects of the script, which we still miss,” Payne explained.

The script cuts were mandated “to compact the script into a decent form and length” that correlated to the budget the project could afford on the open market of film financing. Making things more complicated, as my article references, were the detours or digressions that Payne and Taylor take with their scripts.

“Jim and I tend not to write screenplays which conform to traditional contemporary screenplay structure,” Payne said. “Maybe they do after the fact, but while we’re writing and while we’re in the midst of it were writing what feels to us like a shaggy dog story.

Downsizing was shaping up to be an unwieldy shaggy dog story until getting pruned into its shooting script form.

As my earlier article also alludes to, there is naturally a tendency to assume that because of Downsizing’s subject matter and sci-fi contours, it must be a major departure from the artist’s previous work. Payne disagrees. I concur that it in fact conforms quite neatly into the examination of minutiae running through all his work. In this case the minutiae just happens to coincide with miniaturization. So, where will Downsizing fit in the Payne canon? That cannot be known with any certainty until the film is released and reviewed. But I can surmise some things based on what I have read and on what Payne and his collaborators have told me about his vision for committing the story to the screen.

With this project, he digs even deeper than before to expose universal human fears, resentments, prejudices, and desires. There is great portent in the context for why people choose to be miniaturized in the first place. Payne and Taylor set the key events of the story in some near future when Earth is on the brink of disaster due to worsening natural resource depletion and global warming events. Therefore, the film explores the consequences of scarcity thinking run amok.

The story connects with the zeitgeist of impending doom in the air fueled by the threat of melting ice caps and global terrorism and the fear that some contagion will precipitate a zombie plague apocalypse.

“Well, you read it in the paper every day,” Payne told me. “Everyone’s talking about it. People have a genuine sense of finality these days. A hundred years, two hundred years, whatever it might be, that we have left. People have for millennia, well at least centuries – ‘Oh, the end of the world is coming,’ and usually in some bogus religious context. But now it’s occurring in a scientific and empirical context. So, I don’t know, we thought it’d be fun to make a comedy about it.”

He also plays with the notion that faced with such dire circumstances people will respond in very different ways. Some will choose to do nothing, either out of denial or despair, while others will engage in hedonism and exploitation. A few brave souls will be pioneers who undergo reduction and with it downsize their consumption footprint. But as our protagonist Paul. played by Matt Damon, discovers, that transformation unalterably separates him from his previous life. Additionally, instead of downsizing eliminating the problems of the big world that baggage follows him to the small world, where he encounters a whole new set of issues on top of the old ones. The small and normal worlds coexist in uneasy tension. The bigs look down, literally and figuratively, on the smalls. The smalls resent being marginalized and patronized by the bigs. All of it serves as rich metaphor for the bigotry and discrimination that historically attend The Other and that result in segregation and isolation.

 

 

      Jason Sudeikis

Alec Baldwin and Jason Sudeikis

Neil Patrick Harris  Neil Patrick Harris

Premiere Of Warner Bros. Pictures' "Inherent Vice" - Arrivals

Hong Chau

 

Paul finds the same avarice, conflict, and inequity of the outside world present in the contrived new world he enters. He is a good-hearted, dutiful worker bee who just wants to do the right thing as a husband, as a son, as a neighbor, as a friend, as a citizen. In the big world he is an occupational therapist who tries hard to please his wife (played by Kristen Wiig), care for his mother, and help people with their physical ailments. Then, after a betrayal, he is thrust into the small world bereft of everything he held dear. Instead of the promised utopia, he finds a cold, artificial construct under glass called Leisureland Estates that sucks the life right out of him.

The aforementioned betrayal happens when his wife, who has talked Paul into the two of them being miniaturizized, backs out of the downsizing process at the last minute. He only learns about her change of heart when it is too late and his own miniaturization is complete. He is stuck and there is no going back. Talk about a bummer.

Payne once had Paul Giamatti lined up to play Paul, but that was years ago. Matt Damon brings the same kind of ordinariness to bear with the advantage of being a bankable leading man.

“Among contemporary leading men he is the closest thing we have to an Every Man,” Payne said. “We saw it in The Martian particularly. More and more he is assuming the role that say James Stewart and more recently Tom Hanks used to play. At least you can relate to the guy and you can project some of your own fears, yearnings, aspirations onto his face. You understand him. There are many contemporary American stars with whom I don’t have that relationship. I can’t project any of my vulnerabilities or fears or aspirations onto their faces. But on Matt Damon’s, I can, and he’s kind of the only one we have at that upper level. We don’t have Dustin Hoffman as a young man any more, or Al Pacino or Jack Lemmon or James Stewart. Other people can disagree with me and say what about this one or what about that one but really among the upper echelon of contemporary American movie stars Matt Damon comes the closest to being our Everyman.”

Two actors expert at incisive comedy, Alec Baldwin and Neil Patrick Harris, play a real estate magnate and a salesman, respectively, who make fodder of the downsizing phenomenon. In this odd new existence, uprooted from all he knew, Paul struggles finding his bearings and thus his identity. He keeps running up against systems and persons predisposed to take advantage of the naive, the weak, the powerless, the dispossessed.

There is much here that makes subtle barbed reference to the false American Dream sold to the masses in real life. The fabricated small world set aside for the miniaturized population is suggestive of the internment-refugee camps, ghettos, and other confined areas that minorities have traditionally been relegated to by the majority population. Payne and Taylor also imply that the name Downsizing refers to the ever narrow-minded views and declining values so prevalent today among nations and leaders.

 

Udo Kier
Paul Mabon
Warren Belle

 

Warren Belle

 

 

Far from being only a bleak take on things, Payne and Taylor also portray this social experiment as a full-blooded experience where people are still passionate and where desire still rules the human heart. Paul eventually finds his way but in a most unexpected series of events that introduces him to people caught up in social-political-criminal intrigue. As with any fable where the protagonist is adrift in a strange new environment – think Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz, The Hobbit and Star Wars for starters – Paul partners with fellow travelers navigating the surreal landscape. One is a female Vietnamese dissident played by Hong Chau and the other is a crooked Serbian entrepreneur played by Christoph Waltz.

“You’ve got the guy who’s on his journey, you’ve got the love interest who helps him do so and then you’ve got the reluctant, self-absorbed helper,” is how Payne described this troika “As American a place as Leisureland Estates is in New Mexico we still wanted to have a sense of the global impact of downsizing – of the miniaturization process – and that in any small city around the world you might meet very diverse people, and Paul does.”

All of it leads Paul to unknowingly assume a key role in a great shift about to occur in human history. In the process this meek man discovers he is stronger than he thinks. The plot-line makes Downsizing a Passage story of epic, mythic, even heroic dimensions

The story moves across great swaths of time and space. It opens in a setting that could be a prehistoric cave but that turns out to be a haven somewhere and sometime else altogether. In what is the most physically ambitious of Payne’s films to date, we are taken to locations as diverse as South Omaha, the small world enclosure known as Leisureland, the fjords of Norway and a Middle Earth. Payne and the largest crew he has ever worked with will work in Los Angeles, Omaha, Toronto, and Norway to capture actual locales. They will create imaginary locales on sound stages and in effects suites in Toronto.

The film ended up being based in Toronto for practical reasons, namely the generous tax credits offered by that country and American money stretching even farther there due to the soft Canadian dollar. The presence of Toronto’s extensive, state of the art Pinewood Studios also helped sway Paramount to cross borders. For years now California state officials have railed against U.S. productions leaving the historical base of the American film industry, Hollywood, to shoot elsewhere but it is particularly galling when projects leave the country altogether to go north of the border. Incentives go a long way toward enticing filmmakers and their studios to shoot somewhere. It is an incredibly competitive environment, too, as states and countries vie for slices of the Hollywood pie. Norway sweetened the pot for Downsizing by receiving backing from the Norwegian Film Institute’s new incentive scheme for international and local films and series. The picture, which plans to make great use of Norway’s coastal and fjord areas, reportedly got four and a half million in Norwegian krones (equal to about 685,000 U.S. dollars).

In all his films, but most concretely starting with About Schmidt, Payne lays out a literal journey of self-discovery for his protagonists, each of whom is driven by crisis. When Warren Schmidt loses his career and wife he hits the road in search of himself only to learn it is an inside job. Screw-ups Jack and Miles lay waste to wine country in a dissolute attempt to avoid growing up before coming to terms with reality and love. After learning his comatose wife cheated on him, Matt’s chase for revenge leads to reconciliation with the past. Woody and David set out on a seemingly silly quest only to have key revelations and truths revealed. Paul’s self-worth shrinks with his body until he finds new resolve and purpose in the emerging new world he is catapulted into.

Thus, Downsizing is the latest in an unfolding narrative Payne posits about the human condition. All of life is a journey, he is telling us. We are both observers and participants, so buckle up and try to enjoy the ride because it is all we get in our finite lifetime. If we pay attention, we may just learn something about ourselves along the way and perhaps grow from the experience.

Oscar-winner Waltz was not mentioned in the first exclusive piece I broke because his casting had not been yet been announced. He is the latest in a growing number of prominent actors who have signed to work with Payne in recent years. With any Payne watch. it is fun to speculate with whom he might next work. One of the anticipatory joys of Downsizing will be how the impressive ensemble he worked with mesh together. Given Payne’s meticulous casting and outstanding record of working with actors, it is a good bet the results will be entertaining and perhaps even provide some of these artists’ most memorable performances.

 


FINAL FRONT COVER 6-28-16YOU CAN READ THE REST IN THE NEW EDITION OF MY BOOK-

Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film

(The new edition encompasses the Oscar-winning filmmaker’s work from the mid-1990s through Nebraska in 2013 and his new film Downsizing releasing in 2017 )

Now available  at Barnes & Noble and other fine booktores nationwide as well as on Amazon and for Kindle. In Nebraska, you can find it at all Barnes & Noble stores, The Bookworm and Our Bookstore in Omaha, Indigo Bridge Books in Lincoln and in select gift shops statewide. You can also order signed copies through the author’s blog leoadambiga.com or via http://www.facebook.com/LeoAdamBiga or by emailing leo32158@cox,net. 

For more information. visit– https://www.facebook.com/pg/AlexanderPayneExpert/about/?ref=page_internal

 
 

Omaha Film Festival adds spotlight on Nebraska films


If there ever has been the equivalent of a Nebraska New Wave in cinema, then the time may be now. That is the assertion or suggestion I make in this Reader (www.thereader.com) story about the 2016 Omaha Film Festival and its Nebraska Spotlight focus on homegrown films and filmmakers.

 

LEW POSTER

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Omaha Film Festival adds spotlight on Nebraska films

Nebraska New Wave in cinema featured at fest

Author of Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film

 

It used to be conversations about local filmmakers doing relevant work here began and ended with Alexander Payne and Nik Fackler. That’s changing now and the March 8-13 Omaha Film Festival (OFF) is evidence of it.

The 11-year-old fest, back for the third year at Marcus Village Pointe Cinema, is programming more selections with local ties courtesy its new Nebraska Spotlight lineup of feature-length narrative and documentary films. This acknowledgement that a Nebraska New Wave in cinema is upon us follows breakout work by homegrown filmmakers Dan Susman, James Duff, Patty Dillon, Charles Hood, Jim Fields, Dan Mirvish, Dana Altman, Yolonda Ross, Patrick Coyle, Charles Fairbanks, Jason Fischer and others. Spotlight now provides a dedicated platform for feature filmmakers and their films who have some link to this place.

The fest is not as parochial as this sounds, Most OFF entries have no Neb. connection whatsoever. But Spotlight is that showcase for emerging and established local filmmakers to shine.

Omaha indie rocker Tim Kasher is showing his feature writing-directorial debut No Resolution. Award-winning resident video photojournalist Mele Mason has a new documentary I Dream of an Omaha Where with a powerful local theme. OFF co-founder Jason Levering, who adapted Stephen King’s The Shining to the stage, is premiering a first feature he co-wrote and directed, Blind Luck.

Itinerant area actor Lonnie Senstock’s doc Once in a Lew Moon profiles Hollywood luminary Lew Hunter. Omaha thespian Erich Hover has produced a highly personal story drawn from his own life in It Snows All the Time. Writer-director Matt Sobel mined memories of Loup City family reunions for his first feature, Take Me to the River. It played Sundance last year.

 

It Snows All the Time 

March 9 @ 5:45 p.m.

Erich Hover’s passion project dramatizes his father’s real life struggle with frontotemporal dementia and how its debilitating effects have impacted the family. Hover shared the story with actor-writer-director Jay Giannone, who brought it to his writing partner, Eric Watson, a Darren Aronofsky collaborator. The resulting script by Giannone and Watson landed Brett Cullen as the father and Lesley Ann Warren as the wife. Hover plays a film version of himself in the film that Giannone directed. The name cast includes Omaha’s own John Beasley.

The pic shot in and around Omaha.

 

Black Luck

March 10 @ 8:30 p.m.

Jason Levering and David Weiss directed a script Levering wrote with Garrett Sheeks. The log line reads: “A hit man in hiding struggles to keep his monsters at bay when his dark past comes calling.” Levering says, “Although the subject matter seems like familiar ground, our take is more story-driven than action-oriented, offering the audience a thriller with a mystery at its core and several twists and turns. We did some non-traditional things with our storytelling. We went theChinatown route with our main character, whose face is covered in bandages for most of the film due to the beatings his suffers.”

The film shot in Omaha with a local cast.

 

No Resolution

March 11 @ 6 p.m.

“I’ve been wanting to shoot a movie for most of my life. This is the culmination of that, I guess,” Tim Kasher says. “I’ve written a handful of scripts over the years. This just happens to be the latest one I’ve written. The story is a fairly intense evening between an engaged couple who are at an impasse in their relationship. I’m obsessed with this long, drawn-out sort of fight on screen. But a lot occurs in between the arguments as well.”

He shot the flick in Chicago. it features his own music and that of friends. Kasher previously only directed video shorts. He got advice from two filmmaker friends, Nik Fackler and Dana Altman. “They have helped unravel some of the mystery for me,” he says. “I really enjoyed all of it. It’s all so exciting. I even love how long the days are. I could hardly sleep each night, and then I would sleep so hard for a few condensed hours out of absolute fatigue.”

 

Once in a Lew Moon

March 12 @ 3:45 p.m.

The subject of this documentary, Lew Hunter, is the classic small town boy made good in Hollywood story. This former executive at all three major networks and Disney is also a writer-producer with notable made-for-TV movie credits to his name. But he’s best known as the author of the never out of print bible for scriptwriting, Screenwriting 434, based on the UCLA graduate class he’s taught since 1979. Filmmaker Lonnie Senstock captures the warm, communal spirit Hunter creates with students at UCLA and at the screenwriting colony he leads at his home in Superior, Nebraska.

 

Take Me to the River

March 12 @ 6:15 p.m.

Matt Sobel grew up in Calif. but came to Neb. for family reunions. A dream he had about being falsely accused of something terrible at a reunion so upset him he set out to capture “that visceral sensation” in a script that otherwise tells a fictional story. He filmed at the very farm he visited for those reunions. Rising star Logan Miller plays the boy, Ryder, who finds himself under suspicion on the very weekend he’s coming out. The cast is rounded out by veteran supporting players.

All indie filmmakers have a rite-of-passage getting their work from page to screen, Sobel’s circuitous path took him on Cannes, Rotterdam and Manitoba detours before ending up back in Nebraska.

 

I Dream of an Omaha Where…

March 13 @ 2:30 p.m.

Mele Mason documented a local collaborative project moderated by national performance artist Daniel Beaty that involved former gang members and people affected by gangs.

“The project took participants through intense and moving workshops to a performance of a play utilizing workshop transcripts. I was able to document each step of this incredible process,” Mason says. “The I Dream project was a transformative experience for those sharing their stories and is also changing the dialogue in Omaha and similarly affected cities about the nature and impact of gang violence. To me and hopefully to the audience, it puts a human face on those who have or still are participating in gangs and the people who have been tragically affected by gang violence.”

 

When Voices Meet: One Divided Country; One United Choir; One Courageous Journey 

March 13 @ 11:45 a.m.

In addition to the out-of-competition Spotlight features, there’s a feature documentary in competition whose producer-director-editor, Nancy Sutton Smith, teaches at Northeast Community College in Norfolk. When Voices Meet charts the experiences of a multiracial youth choir formed by musician activists in South Africa following Nelson Mandela’s release from prison. Ignoring threats, the choir traveled across the country via The Peace Train and became the face for the democracy Mandela moved the nation towards. The group performed for seven years, Members remained close friends. They reunited to share their stories.

A TV segment Smith produced about The Peace Train led to a decade-long collaboration that resulted in the documentary, which has become an award-winning darling at festivals.

 

The fest also has its usual block of locally produced shorts. The OFF Conference will include industry panelists from Nebraska. Conference Q&A’s and Fest parties offer opportunities to meet film artists,

Add to these local film currents Alexander Payne’s Downsizing lensing this spring (a week in Omaha) with Matt Damon and Reese Witherspoon, the features East Texas Hot Links and The Magician gearing up for area shoots, plus Dan Mirvish with a new project and Nik Fackler writing scripts again, and the local cinema culture is popping. Once the Dundee Theater reopens, it’s a full-on moviepalooza in this dawning Nebraska New Wave movement.

For the complete OFF schedule, visit http://omahafilmfestival.org/.

Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.com.

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